Tim O’Brien’s spiritual folk
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 28, 2003) – At this point in his career, Tim O’Brien approaches music as much as a spiritual pursuit as anything else. The multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, perhaps best known as a mandolinist with the seminal bluegrass outfit, Hot Rize, has nothing left to prove. But he stakes everything on his next song, whatever it may be.

“The deeper I get into it, the more I realize that I owe it to myself and to everyone to do my best,” said O’Brien -- who will perform solo at Club Helsinki on Sunday night at 8:30 – in a recent phone interview from his home in Nashville.

“It’s not enough to do it well enough to pay the bills or to just sing a song. I need to keep digging -- it’s a fascinating thing and it never ends.”

The self-taught instrumentalist and native of Wheeling, W. Va., is recognized as one of the pioneers of contemporary bluegrass, with one foot firmly planted in tradition and the other extending far enough into the present to allow him, for example, to record an entire album’s worth of bluegrass interpretations of Bob Dylan songs.

With Hot Rize, O’Brien enjoyed a 12-year-run as a member of one of the most popular ensembles in bluegrass, as well as one of the most entertaining. A regular staple of the band’s stage show was to run offstage, change outfits, and return as a country-and-western honky-tonk group called Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.

While Hot Rize occasionally reunites for festival performances – as it will at this summer’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in nearby Ancramdale, N.Y., on July 19 -- O’Brien has been working mostly as a solo artist for the last decade, performing and recording traditional folk music and original, singer-songwriter material.

For the last few years, O’Brien has committed himself to exploring his Irish ancestry, beginning with the album “The Crossing” through its follow-up, “Two Journeys.” Through traditional and original songs that explore the Irish immigrant experience, and through collaboration with an all-star cast of the best Irish and Irish-American musicians, including Kevin Burke, Paul Brady, John Williams, Paddy Keenan, Maura O’Connell and Karan Casey, O’Brien created a sort of musical equivalent of “Angela’s Ashes.”

“It was the logical extension of being a musician who plays Celtic-related music who is also Irish-American,” said O’Brien. “It just sticks out and says, ‘Do me.’ It’s just there.

“Also, as I got older and got more into learning about where my relatives came from, what it was about is that it helps define maybe who I am. But I’ve always enjoyed the music, and I’ve always been interested in the history, and it becomes even more personal than that.”

O’Brien knew from a young age that music would be more than just his professional outlet – it would be his currency for engaging with the world.

“When my sister, who was older than me, started taking piano lessons and I started banging around on the piano, it was apparent that I could find the notes that were pleasing and find rhythms and make melodies without anyone telling me how to do it,” said O’Brien, who was the youngest of five children.

“Soon after I began learning guitar,” said O’Brien, “and in just a few months I could get lost in the sound of making music on the guitar. Just the beauty of making a ‘D’ chord and taking one finger off and seeing how that changed the sound – it was another way of looking at the world.

“It’s a natural thing. Music is very abstract -- the sound of it -- but you’ve got the abstract connected to the physical act of it, which pretty much completes the circle of life. You’ve got existence -- the empirical outward stuff -- and how you make it happen. You participate in that and all of a sudden you’re living. You’re well-rounded.”

“Music is an art, a communication exercise. You’re trying to make something that’s beautiful. A lot of people say you want to mirror life with art. When you do that, you’ve got people taking time to look at life, which is communication.

“That’s a valuable thing. There are so many avenues to explore. I just started out really just interested in the sound of it. When I figured out I could make it, it became irresistible, an entire world to jump into, a holy place, a spiritual life work.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 31, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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